Ireland’s ‘Gaelscoileanna’ Creating Educational Divide

November 03, 2008 06:28 AM
by Denis Cummings
Irish-medium schools help preserve the Irish language and have been shown to improve students’ command of English, but critics call the schools elitist and anti-immigrant.

Gaelscoileanna Become Increasing Popular

Irish language schools, known as gaelscoileanna, have been increasing significantly in number over the past three decades. There are currently 171 Irish-medium primary schools and 43 secondary schools outside the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht regions, up from just 16 total schools in 1972, and parents are helping to organize new ones each year.

Proponents of gaelscoileanna say that the schools honor the history and culture of Ireland, encouraging the Irish to take pride in their heritage. “We are a much more confident nation and language is a very powerful tool to express ones identity especially in Europe,” said Breandan Mac Craith of Irish language organization Foras na Gaeilge to The Epoch Times.

Students in gaelscoileanna perform better in tests than other students, performing well even in English. “Pupils take advantage of language acquisition skills they pick up from being immersed in Irish at an early age. That kicks in when they start learning to read and they transfer their reading skills from Irish to English,” said Dónal Ó hAiniféin, principal of a gaelscoil in County Clare.

There is intense competition for places in a gaelscoil, with some parents facing three-year waiting lists to enroll their children. Critics of gaelscoileanna say that this competition fosters elitism, giving the children of wealthy parents a distinct advantage over poorer or immigrant children in being accepted. Gaelscoileanna and other secondary schools have few immigrant or special needs students, according to a 2008 audit by the Department of Education and Science, which called the situation an “educational apartheid.”

Critics also say that the gaelscoileanna discriminate against Ireland’s increasing immigrant population, who seek English-language education for their children. The result is that immigrants are confined to publicly run community or vocational schools, while the elite attend gaelscoileanna. “These schools could unintentionally lead to a kind of white flight from English-language education,” primary school principal Colette Kavanagh told Time magazine.

Louise Holden of The Irish Times summarizes the complaints against gaelscoileanna, writing, “It’s about snobbery and status. It’s a post-Riverdance cultural zeitgeist. It’s the circling of ethnic wagons in a multicultural storm.” But gaelscoileanna advocates say they are inclusive to all; “This is a grass-roots, demand-led movement and anyone who wants to be part of it is welcome,” says Donaill O’Conaill of Foras Patrúnachta, an organization that oversees over 50 gaelscoileanna.

Some schools have responded to the problem by establishing minimums for foreign-born students. Time magazine cites one gaelscoil in Ennis, which has a 5 percent minimum and last year had 10 percent of its admissions be foreign-born children. Some say the exposure to the Irish language helps immigrants better adjust to Irish society.

“People don’t realize I’m not from here when I speak in Irish,” said a Czech immigrant who learned Irish. “A lot of Irish people who speak Irish speak it as a second language and so we are all on the same footing. I fit in better in Irish.”

Background: What is a gaelscoil?

Gaelscoileanna, the plural of gaelscoil, refers to Irish-language schools. The curriculum in a gaelscoil is virtually the same as an English-language school, teaching subjects like math, history and science all in the Irish language.

Outside of the Gaeltacht, gaelscoileanna often teach children who do not speak Irish at home or in their daily lives. In most gaelscoileanna, the first two years of lessons are taught entirely in Irish to immerse children in the language. English is then gradually worked into the curriculum and many students turn to English-language education when they reach secondary school.

Most gaelscoileanna are created by groups of parents who can demonstrate a need for a gaelscoil in their area. If they can show that there are at least 17 children interested in attending a gaelscoil, provide a suitable site for a school and satisfy other conditions, the state will fund the creation a new gaelscoil.

Research has shown that students educated in gaelscoileanna perform better than children of similar economic backgrounds taught in English-language schools. “These findings are preliminary, and many within the educational establishment believe more research on this model of education is needed,” writes Rónán Mullen, member of the Seanad Éireann house of parliament. “But research from other countries where the method is used, e.g. Wales, Scotland and Canada, tends to reinforce what research here has found, which is that children educated through the minority language of the country end up performing better in the dominant language.”

Last year, the Department of Education issued a directive that would have forced gaelscoileanna to dedicate part of the day to English-language teaching. Gaelscoileanna leaders rejected the order and it looks unlikely that it will be enforced.

Historical Context: Gaelic revival

Gaelscoileanna were created in the 19th century during the Gaelic Revival. After centuries of British colonization and oppression, the Irish language and culture was in danger of dying out. Scholars like William Butler Yates, Douglas Hyde and Eoin MacNeill promoted Irish language, literature, folklore and sport, rejecting the British way of life that had become common in Ireland.

In “The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland,” Hyde argued for the preservation of the Irish language. “I have no hesitation at all in saying that every Irish-feeling Irishman, who hates the reproach of West-Britonism, should set himself to encourage the efforts, which are being made to keep alive our once great national tongue,” he stated. “The losing of it is our greatest blow, and the sorest stroke that the rapid Anglicisation of Ireland has inflicted upon us.”

The founding of the National Literary Society, Gaelic League and Gaelic Athletic Association helped advance Irish culture and played a significant role in the nationalist movements of the 20th century.

Reference: Irish language resources


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines